A Production Artist’s Education
Freelance production artists do not need to have four-year degrees — often, a two-year degree from a career-oriented graphic arts program is sufficient to get you started finding work as a freelancer.
Sometimes, an artist who aspires to fine-art or graphic design work will take jobs as a full-time or freelance production artist while completing a four-year degree. This can be a useful way to get to know how art departments and advertising agencies work.
By far the most important part of a freelance production artist’s education is learning production software — not just the basics, but the shortcuts that will help you get more work done quickly. Get as much hands-on experience as possible while studying, by taking classes, doing internships, and investing in lower-priced “education” versions of popular programs such as QuarkXpress, Adobe Photoshop, and InDesign.
Large animation studios sometimes hire production artists to help crank out jobs in a hurry. This can be a useful way to break into the industry.
A common career path involves starting as an “in-betweener,” creating transitional drawings between key moments in a scene. A major skill for this job is being able to imitate a senior animator’s style and line quality.
Another junior-level job in animation studios is layout artist. This person roughs out backgrounds for each scene, which are not used in the final product but which are vital to proper positioning and perspective in the animation itself.
Catalog Layout and Production
Production artists are often called upon to work on catalogs, which require a great deal of deadline work to pull together layouts, text, and photographs using an existing set of templates and guidelines.
As you work on a catalog, it’s important to vary the “density” — the amount of white space, photos, and text — so that each spread is different. When pages all look the same, readers tend to get bored.
While some catalogs are meant to be an absorbing visual experience, complete with short editorial pieces, it will generally be preferable to use sensible categories to organize your products. Like a well-designed website, a well-designed catalog should give readers an idea of where they are in the publication and what other options are available for exploring.
Once you’ve enticed readers in with an attractive cover, most of them are looking for information: “How much is it? Does it come in the size I need? Where is it made?” Help them out. Use consistent, readable type, be sparing with color, and don’t overcrowd your pages.
Interactive Production Artists
Increasingly, freelance production artists jobs require experience with Web design, video, and audio. The tasks assigned to such an artist might include edit- ing a video to match a storyboard, deploying logos and icons, preparing prototypes for presentations, and keeping pace with rapid revision cycles.
These jobs are more likely to require a four-year degree, as well as experience with Dreamweaver, Flash, and the Adobe Creative Suite. In addition, you’ll need a working knowledge of HTML code and cascading stylesheets (CSS).
Know Your Platforms
If you’re coming into production artist work from another corporate environment, it’s possible that you’ve never used a Mac computer. If you’re fresh from design school, you may be great with Macs but less than sharp with PCs.
Both platforms have done a great deal to move closer together in recent years, but design is one of the industries in which the Mac reigns supreme.
Both Macs and PCs are capable of performing high-end design work, so if you’re setting up your own freelance shop, you should buy whichever one you’re most comfortable using. As an in-house freelancer, though, you definitely have an advantage if you can handle both platforms with ease.
A freelance artist must often act as liaison between an employer and a printer. If you are given this role, it will help to know some of the basic terminology printers use. Here are a few terms to get you started:
• Mechanicals: This term refers to the requirements of this particular press, and also to the separated forms used to print four-color images. Often still used despite the rise of digital printing, which does not require them.
• Prepress: The process of going over a first copy of a printed product with the press operator to make any needed corrections to color and other factors
• Gutter: The space between columns in a printed publication
• Bleed: When a color image is printed all the way to the outermost
edge of the printed page.
The Freelance Production Artist’s Role
The freelance production artist does more doing than concepting. While this is a junior role in many art departments, it is a vital one, taking a concept from a rough plan into a finished product, often on tight deadlines. Some of the projects a freelance production artist might do include:
• Create Flash animations from an art director’s drawings
• Shepherd a package design through prepress to be sure the finished product matches expectations
• Take a senior designer’s logo and use Photoshop to deploy the logo in business cards, letterhead, and a web template
• Lay out a catalog using a product list specified by a creative director